August 18th, 2009

Michelle Rhee in Washington, DC
Michelle Rhee in Washington Episode 10: Testing Michelle Rhee

This program was made by possible by support from the Annenberg, The Eli and Edythe Broad, Bill & Melinda Gates, William and Flora Hewlett and Wallace Foundations.

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Correction: This report has been edited to reflect that test scores at Shaw MS declined 4% in math and 9% in reading.

It was a little over two years ago that we began following Michelle Rhee’s efforts to change what was one of the country’s worst public school systems. Over the course of nine episodes, we have captured her no-nonsense candor that has been a hallmark of her first two years. And now we finish two years of coverage with our 10th episode. In this report we ask the question, “Is education better in DC today?”

The test scores say ‘yes,’ because almost half of elementary students are now on grade level, according to the city’s year-end DC-CAS test. That may not sound like much, but when Rhee took over, only 29% were on grade level in math.

But some say that higher scores alone do not necessarily mean better schools. Watch as both sides present their case in this complex debate.

Download transcript (pdf)

You can watch the entirety of the Michelle Rhee series here:

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You got at least one thing wrong. Shaw’s scores did not stay about the same. They went down - reading scores declined from 38.52% in ’08 to 29.20% in ’09 and it’s math scores went from 33.33% to 29.02%.

This can easily be verified at the official website Did you not check? Did you just take Chancellor Rhee’s or Principal Betts’ word on it? The fact that Shaw’s scores didn’t go up is a major embarrassment for Rhee. She installed a new principal, who hired a new staff, selected for being young and “unjaded” and he paid the kids for good behavior and attendance.

It seems imperative that Rhee is asked to re-examine her determination to pursue this method and not gloss over an obvious failure with a misrepresentation of the facts.

Part of me is grateful that you didn’t just drop the Shaw story or try to dress it up. But really — these are our children — you are educational reporters. I expect the truth and you didn’t tell it here.

Well, this story was less fawning than most coverage of Rhee, but as the previous poster pointed out, Shaw’s scores dropped. Mr. Betts will get more time because he is a friend of Rhee, but if the same had happened to an experienced principal, they would have been fired.

I’m a DCPS parent and I admit, I was pro-Rhee the first year. She said all the right things and she is wonderful at giving an interview or running a town hall type meeting.

What she lacks though, is the experience and substance to understand what it takes to actually run a school. She’s got a plan to blow it up, but I’ve yet to see what is going to be built after the destruction.

My kids attend a low-income school that is staffed by hard-working and experienced educators and administrators. The heat still doesn’t work, copiers break down and stay broken, the budget is frozen most of the year and by May they were out of copy paper. Rhee may have fired lots of staff at headquarters, but she hasn’t exactly done a bang up job filling the positions with responsive workers.

Finally, my oldest child missed 3 questions on the math practice test, the DC-BAS. He spent an entire math period (1.5 hours) reviewing those questions. The amount of timed devoted to testing was ridiculous and it crushed his desire to attend school.

He will attend a charter school in the fall.

E-favorite is correct about Shaw. As noted in the correction on the page above, we reported that test scores at Shaw Middle School had stayed about the same. That statement was based on preliminary test data, but subsequent recalculation revealed that math scores at Shaw declined 4%, and reading scores declined 9%. We regret the error.

Mr. Merrow - Thank you for correcting this error.
Regarding preliminary test data, it was not available to the public until 8/14/09, so unless you had special access to it, I imagine your information about Shaw’s scores staying about the same came from DCPS. I strongly doubt this information is accurate. Here’s why: Shaw is a newly consolidated school and the OSSE website makes it clear that the rules were changed in DC this year to prevent consolidation from lowering AYP scores.
See for full details. Here is an excerpt:
“» The amendment for consolidated schools includes a petition option: “If a consolidation results in a change of forty (40) percent of the receiving school’s population, an LEA may petition to have the school’s safe harbor targets that will be used in determining adequate yearly progress (AYP) for the next school year recalculated based on the school’s new population. In such cases, in the first year of consolidation, the school would receive the AYP determination of the receiving school. However, for the purposes of determining AYP via safe harbor for the year following the consolidation, the District of Columbia would recalculate the safe harbor targets based on the consolidated population (i.e., based on the previous year’s assessment results for all students from the sending and receiving schools that constitute the population of the consolidated school).”
In other words, receiving schools (like Shaw) aren’t penalized for potentially lower scores from sending schools (like Garnet-Patterson) the year they combine to make one consolidated school. Thus, if students from the sending school have lower scores, the receiving school can petition to keep them from being included for purposes of calculating AYP for the consolidated school. Shaw petitioned and its petition was granted (see page 7):

A school would only petition if it knew that eliminating the sending school’s scores would raise its overall scores. So unless I’m missing something, Shaw’s preliminary scores must have been even lower than its final scores. Anyone who knew the preliminary scores and knew the rules would know that the scores could only go up.

Please let me know if my logic is off. If so, I regret wasting your time on this. If not, I think another correction is needed. I think readers deserve an explanation, too, of how you came by the preliminary results.

Remember Shaw was Rhee’s model school. Shaw junior high was given more money according to the District CFO in error while many poor schools were not given the money they should have been allotted. Shaw had lower class sizes than other schools and did not have to rely substitutes regularly teaching their students as did many other schools who were not properly funded.

Efavorite is correct as you note in his assessment. Thanks for the retraction. Many of the veteran teachers from Shaw were removed last year and described by Rhee as jaded and replaced with inexperienced teachers from Teach For America who were described as having energy and enthusiasm. Having a 9 per cent drop in reading is unacceptable. Rhee owes the DC community an apology as well as veteran educators who although jaded according to Rhee would probably have been able to show gains this school year if only left in place at the school. The principal of this model school- Shaw needs the boot especially since this is Rhee’s price for poor performance. it is interesting that the principal was spared when principals who made AYP and earned middle states accreditation were fired. It’s a pity that Rhee is terminating the wrong teachers and principals. By my count I believe 250 teachers and 28 principals have been terminated this year and counting. At least that is the number as revealed by The Washington Post and as per Rhee in her recent testimony.

Oops — let me correct myself, I should have said, “Regarding preliminary test data, it was not available to the public. FINAL PUBLIC DATA CAME OUT ON 8/14/09, so unless you had special access to THE PREMININARY DATA, ….”

Sorry to keep bugging you about this, but you need to correct the transcript too.
As of 6:10 PM EDT, it still says, “Test scores at Shaw stayed about the same.”

Also, on July 22, 09, an anonymous source claiming access to the preliminary data reported to the Washington Teachers blog that:

“Shaw’s reading scores for those who passed in 2008 was 38.52% this year those reading scores dropped to 29.65% ….The math scores for Shaw in 2008 was 33.33% in 2009, they went down to 29.46%.”

These scores are remarkably similar to Shaw’s final scores: reading, down from 38.52% in ’08 to 29.20% in ’09 and math, down from 33.33% to 29.02%.”

So, if these are accurate, then the preliminary scores were not “about the same” as the year before. I do acknowledge error on one point, though – the final scores are ever so lightly lower than the preliminaries. Perhaps this what the PBS source meant by “scores declined.”

Surely Michelle Rhee must know that if children are drilled on a particular test, that test cannot be used to measure what they have learned, except perhaps the test items themselves. For example, if a fifth grader is drilled on a list of twenty spelling words and gets 100% on the test, that does not mean he has mastered fifth grade spelling. It only tells us that he has memorized twenty words. Test items are samples of what has been taught and are not the same as the curriculum. To find out if the child has mastered fifth grade spelling, you’d have to give him a sample of fifth grade words.

Mr. Merrow can help the children of DC by asking Ms. Rhee if she’d be willing to give another form of the test, under very strict conditions, to a school that has made good progress. It would be very interesting to see the results. Citizens have a right to know if the children are really learning or if they are just being drilled on test items. There is a huge difference between the two.

@E Favorite: I believe the transcript has been corrected–there is an editor’s note at the top of the transcript page.

In my haste to acknowledge our error, I posted an explanation that was not accurate. The proficiency level data for Shaw MS had not been recalculated.

Thank you for your episodes on education. They provide a good forum for discussion and debate.

In classes I teach at DePaul University in Chicago - teaching writing and teaching literature – all the classes I teach there - I show an old Gary Larsen cartoon. It’s a cartoon of a lion tamer in the ring with the lions. He’s snapping his whip and shooting his pistol. One of the lions seated on the chair leans over to his fellow lion on the chair beside him and confides, “Pass it on, he’s using blanks.” I say to students - never underestimate the intelligence of students, regardless of… anything: race, gender, culture, class, language ability….

What’s “wrong” with Rhee’s approach - and so many others - is the standardized testing. You may have read comments posted in response to your broadcasts - how teachers drill - and kill - students with all the test preparation.

Students aren’t clogs, not dumb or lazy. Many, for many good reasons, don’t like school at all. Disaffected – surly, burly, and churlish students - give schools and teachers a bigger pain in the arse than we want, need, or care for. Teachers alone can’t deal with the… hard core social ills that plague public education – because it is public education. We need help from all quarters of society; parents, relatives, friends, media, organizations (e.g., YMCA, YWCA), government, and we need good strong money. School schools way too much; as human beings, we yearn to learn. Students, remember comrades and colleagues, are human beings, as we are, and they are human beings as we all were, too, at their age. Who among us didn’t do something dumber than dung? (Gunning the old black, dented ’53 Chevy at 90 MPH early Saturday morning on the dirt road after a few GIQ’s near the B&M railroad tracks with five other guys yelling, Little Richard louder yet on the radio?)

Human beings are smart and curious by nature (see Emerson’s jewel, “Education”). In our schools, let’s honor and promote – celebrate, for crying out loud - our innate intelligence as human beings. Unless there is brain damage - something physically wrong with the brain’s wiring - every human being can read. We say students can’t read, but they read all the time. It’s how schools define reading - or rather, how they dictate the kinds of reading that students should be doing. That’s why, in the last 20 - 30 years, we see so much emphasis on giving students more choices in what they read and write. Give folks more choices in what they study.

The study of math is a different issue. Math is different from reading or English. Math is a distinct body of knowledge from speech and language. We learn math we say for thus and such reasons. The Committee of Ten in their 1893 Report gave a rationale for studying math in the secondary school curriculum. Studying math enhanced our logical abilities, I think they said. But why do we learn mathematics? What do we tell our students we study mathematics for? When computers at hand can do all the math we ever need?

Language – words – “I am” - are what make us human. Not just human, but poetic human. “Every word,” Emerson writes in The Poet, “was once a poem.” Math has a more rigid set of rules to its understanding and usage. Anymore, computers do all the necessary math your man and woman in the street will ever need. So we have to decide what we mean by math. What’s the rationale for studying what kind of math in public school classrooms?

In a recent article in Harper’s Magazine, “Dehumanized,” Mark Slouka talks about the need for a more humanistic curriculum, less emphasis on the math science curriculum that bogs us down so much. Bring the arts much more to the fore. Let students garden the schools grounds, cook the food they grow. Open classrooms up so students are not seated in rows all day long. (You’d have much less ADD and ADHD diagnoses, I assure you. Who can sit still, young or old, man, woman, child, listening to somebody drone on about predicate nominatives or asking what size shoes Lincoln wore to the Second Inaugural – before you’re thinking Molotov cocktail – or some kind of cocktail?). In short, trust the finer instincts (most of) our students bring to our classes.
Engage parents and the community much more than we do. Teachers simply can’t handle all the social ills that walk in through the doors. We need help. And we need big time help. Encourage more cross grade work. Fifth graders could read with second graders. Twelfth graders could mentor eighth and ninth graders.

Make physical education a priority for a of sit-all day-in-front-of-computers’ generation. Walk, swim, bike, any different kinds of bounce and ball…. If you want a federal education policy or practice, require every student to do yoga exercises for one hour each day. No extras but a little body space needed.

Let schools be places for learning, not places that kill the spirit of learning through standardized tests and standardized test preparation.

Provide no more excuses why we can’t have the best available teachers and supplies and buildings and… whatever it takes if we truly want an educated class - of American citizens and participants in American democracy.

Leave the Federal Government out of it. All teaching is local. I have been in 40 student, tenth grade classrooms in San Bernardino, California - a tenth grade classroom where students work on the vocabulary of eating: fork, knife, spoon, dish, glass…. Trust me, they will not test well on Silas Marner allusions or alluvial allocations.

As a former junior and senior high English teacher in Los Angeles, I saw well that my first period tenth grade class was not my fourth period tenth grade class. I had to - and could - adjust. The notion of working with students as much as possible as individuals - no easy task at all - is not new. Quintilian, all the way back to the first century AD, talks about it.

What’s missing, too, in any efforts to “reform” - is the voices of students themselves. What do they look for in their classrooms? What kinds of things do they consider important to a learned member of society? What’s lacking is imagination and the public will to make a difference in schools.

So long as we house students for X hours during the day, keep the mayhem or the violence or the apathy contained - we don’t seem to mind that schools don’t educate well. We’re all responsible for the education - not the standardized schooling - of our children. No one Chancellor, however dynamic and well and good intentioned, especially when test scores still choke the curiosity and interests of students, will ever turn schools into places that truly educate. Make the arts - music, dance, drama, painting… - central to the curriculum. End the Cartesian grip - and its stultifying effects - on imagination and learning.

It should also be noted that there have been other special circumstances provided to the chancellor that previous superintendents weren’t privy. Upon mayoral takeover, a number of the other issues such as the physical plant issues were handed off to other government agencies like Allen Lew(facilities) and technology (OCTO). As chancellor all she has to do is focus on data. Also, there have been numerous systematic changes in terms of the “culture” of the face of DCPS–it’s younger, outside the system and diverse–which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However, there is alot of other key strategies to student achievement that are being lost in the reform effort.

Forget mentors. Forget coaches. Forget specialist. What would go further in urban districts with primarily low income families, low achieving, social and disciplinary problems, with low parental involvement is reducing classroom size to 1:20 for K-12 students.

I’m so tired of the negative comments about the teachers and schools in D.C. I am a substitute teacher and I go from school to school. Some schools have everything and some schools have little as it relates to support, materials and computers. The news media, parents and politicians make negative comments all the time abouts what the schools and teachers are not doing or have not done to help students achieve success in the classroom and on tests. They never comment on large number of days students have missed school.They never comment on the Below turn out rate of parents who attend the Parents and Teacher conferences. They never ask how many parents are helping their child to read at home daily and making sure their turn in his/her homework daily. I witnessed at one school a teacher trying to get supplies for two days and at another school the teacher was simply just given the key to the supply room.
D.C. - the thing that annoys me the most is the treatment of Regular Teachers VS. Teach for America Teachers. Teach for America Teachers:
1. They are given bounuses and relocations stipens.
2. They can attend any local university to earn the Master’s at the expense of D.C. Schools.
3. They get mentors no matter how many years they have been teaching.
4. The receive additional training to the ones provided by D.C. Schools. I have met some really good friends black and white from the organization, but I think the system is not being fair.Fox example, I witness a teacher try repeatedly to get reimburst for tution, which Regular teachers are suppose to receive, but she was unsuccessful to my knowledge.
Do you know that a lot of the classes have a Substitute Teacher in 40% of the classes daily. I know a substitute who was teaching a class from January 2009 to June 2009 and the class she taught received the highest tests scores on that grade level. That infomation was not in the paper. Also, substitutes are not paid for the work we do. We make $15.00 an hour, no health care, no paid hoidays or vacation even though, we had that class for a lond period. D.C. please help write the Mayor and Michelle Rhee about poor substitute pay.

I just read John Merrow’s 1993 piece on cheating. Very nice, and too bad that not all people who get away with cheating react by swearing never to cheat again.

Instead, some less moral people react by continuing to cheat, honing their skills and never expecting to get caught. Some of them never do, until they’ve done huge amounts of damage that society can no longer overlook.

Chancellor Rhee is live blogging right now at the Washington Post and repeated the false information that you corrected in August about Shaw Middle schools scores. Here’s what she said:

“Shaw was a failing middle school that needed to be restructured. Anyone who has been in the school under the new leadership can attest to the fact that the school’s culture and environment has improved radically. The test scores stayed pretty level this year (not uncommon for the first year of a turn around) and we expect to see greater gains in the years to come. I’m excited by what Principal Betts, the staff and students have done there!”

Washington Post educational writer Jay Mathews published a correction of sorts regarding the misrepresented Shaw scores in his Washington Post blog (below). The chancellor is still misrepresenting them two months after the PBS correction. Perhaps she doesn’t know about your correction, or perhaps she is not concerned about spreading inaccuracies. I am relieved that journalists are not letting her inaccuracies stand.
Fixing Errors (Not Mine, Of Course)

At the Struggle, we like to be accurate. Although when we do corrections we try to dig into them and not to be as boring as those little items on page A2 of the Post. Here is a complaint one of the Struggle’s most persistent readers, known as efavorite, sent me about a recent statement by D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee on a Q and A Sept. 29:
Efavorite: I think a correction should be made about the Shaw score information, just as John Merrow did on the PBS “Learning Matters” website after it aired the same inaccurate information about Shaw back in August. Rhee said in the Q and A:
“Shaw was a failing middle school that needed to be restructured. Anyone who has been in the school under the new leadership can attest to the fact that the school’s culture and environment has improved radically. The test scores stayed pretty level this year (not uncommon for the first year of a turn around) and we expect to see greater gains in the years to come. I’m excited by what Principal Betts, the staff and students have done there!”
That’s not accurate. As you reported in your Sept. 28 column:
“Shaw dropped from 38.7 to 30.5 in the percent of students scoring at least proficient in reading, and from 32.7 to 29.2 in math.”

Me: I think efavorite is right. We stand corrected. But efavorite overlooks the more important issue of what those score drops mean. My column also said that only 17 percent of those 2009 Shaw students were at the school in 2008. It is mostly an apples and oranges not-so-useful comparison. As I said, if you compare the scores of just the 44 students who were there both years, the result is different: “The students’ decline in reading was somewhat smaller; it went from 34.5 to 29.7. Their math scores actually increased a bit, from 26.2 to 29.5” That is closer to Rhee’s view that the test scores stayed pretty level. But a very low level, as I said.

Jay - Speaking of apples and oranges, the -4 and -9 numbers are the ones under discussion, not other un-verified data only mentioned in your column as a result of what sounds like a private conversation with the chancellor. I disagree that I’m “overlooking a more important issue.” I can’t overlook something that’s not visible. How deep do I have to look to find that other data, or is it even available for the public to peruse? How do I know it actually exists? Shaw’s standing is based on the same official, publicly available “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) data used for all the schools, so it’s incredibly disingenuous for Chancellor Rhee to use different data when discussing Shaw’s scores. This is apples and oranges writ large, with fingers crossed behind her back.
Besides, if Shaw had experienced an increase of 4 and 9 using the standard data, I doubt if you or Chancellor Rhee would have said the scores “stayed pretty level.” You’d simply say “increased.” Children first, Jay. You and the Chancellor should set a good example. Second graders can see that -4 and -9 are declines. And they know the difference between a fact and a self-serving distortion.

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